Zika became a hot topic a few years back when over 100,000 people contracted the virus in Colombia. In all, 20 babies were born with microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads if their mother contracted the virus while pregnant. According to the CDC, 10 percent of pregnant women who contract Zika will have babies with serious developmental problems like microcephaly.
In Brazil, an astonishing 1,000 babies were born with serious birth defects due to Zika. This large outbreak in the Americas caused some cases of Zika to emerge in the U.S., according the CDC, including widespread transmission in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands from 2015-2016. A few cases of local transmission occurred in south Florida and Texas.
Currently, there’s a significant outbreak going on in Rajasthan, India, located in the northeastern part of the country where 135 people have contracted the virus and 40 pregnant women are known to have Zika. But in recent years, we’ve heard less about it in the U.S. That left us wondering about the latest on the disease, especially considering how close we are to Florida and the Caribbean. Are we at risk in the Lowcountry? Could the giant birds that we call mosquitoes ever carry the disease and should we as parents be concerned?
For this and more we spoke to Dr. Ken Perry, assistant medical director at the Trident Health Emergency Department.
1. Why does Zika cause so many problems for pregnant women?
The problem with Zika is that the virus attacks the neurological system. In adults it causes Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare illness where the immune system starts attacking the nervous system. In fetuses, it disturbs the laying down of neurons during development. The reason babies with microcephaly have small heads is because of the lack of brain matter caused by the virus. Viruses in general can be very developmentally damaging to babies.
2) Are there any instances of Zika in SC?
No, not that I’m aware of currently. According to the CDC, there haven’t been any reports of the disease in the continental U.S. in recent years.
3) What are the impacts of Zika on children that contract the virus outside of the womb?
For kids that contract Zika, the disease has a similar viral presentation as it does in adults. This can include all over muscle and joint pain, fever, nausea and lack of appetite. The symptoms can be mild and some kids might not even notice them. We haven’t yet seen any long term effects to be concerned about but there are still some things we don’t know like whether kids can pass the virus onto their offspring.
4) What can parents do to protect their kids?
Barrier protection, for example DEET, is important to protect against these viral mosquito-borne diseases like Zika and also malaria, chikungunya and dengue fever. Many of these diseases occur in similar geographic areas like South America and the Caribbean. We’re learning that the risk of using DEET to protect against these diseases may outweigh the risk of using chemicals on the body. Especially when they’re going to be washed off at the end of the day. Also, make sure that you remove any standing water and avoid being outside at dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are the most active.
5) Is there a vaccine for Zika in the works?
A vaccine for Zika is in the works, but it takes 3-5 years to develop a vaccine and then it can take years to get FDA approval. We’re not there yet. Zika has actually been around since the 1940s when it was discovered in Uganda. It’s not new, it’s just new to us. We also didn’t know until recent years that it had such a detrimental impact on the developing fetus.
6) Can kids travel to places where Zika is present?
Yes, they can. But I’d also be concerned about chikungunya and dengue fever, which as mentioned above, occurs in many of the same places geographically. These diseases can cause debilitating pain and other serious symptoms that you certainly wouldn’t want yourself or your children to experience.
If you’re pregnant, avoid traveling to places where an outbreak is currently happening or to places where transmission is occurring. Also, unlike some of the other vector-borne illnesses, Zika has an STD component. This means that it stays alive in seminal fluid for a period of time and a couple should use condoms for a period of about three months if a partner returns from an area where Zika is present. (This is because a pregnant women could contract the illness without knowing it and the virus could attack the fetus). LCP